Sunday, January 23, 2011

Castro will take a stronger hand in schools

By Josh Baugh And Lindsay Kastner
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mayor Julián Castro will take an active role in local school board elections and superintendent appointments, he said in an interview Saturday outside SA2020's final community workshop, one in which education was heralded as key to the city's future.

Castro, stepping directly into a domain previous mayors have avoided, said his plan begins with refusing to accept failure from the city's “urban school districts.”

“I envision, for instance, coming up with a system of measuring the progress of these urban school districts in a mayor's scorecard on their progress and holding them accountable for student success,” he said. “I believe that getting more involved in ensuring that there are knowledgeable and strong board members at these school districts needs to be a part of my job.

“We have sat too long and allowed our school districts to not have as top-notch leadership as they could have, both in superintendents and in school boards.”

Castro said he would support candidates in school board elections that he believes would “enhance the level of excellence for students” in their districts. He said the same applies to superintendents, though “not in a political way.”

“I'm looking for every opportunity to champion those superintendents and what they're doing,” he said.

Recently, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Robert Durón notified the board's president, as his contract requires, that he has applied for another job.

His 41/2-year tenure with the district — which already has exceeded the average for urban school superintendents — has been marked by increased test scores, a lengthy effort to close schools and the recent passage of the district's largest bond to date. But SAISD continues to struggle with a high dropout rate and low state ratings, and Durón's relationship with trustees sometimes has been strained.

Backing Radle

If Castro indeed weighs in on SAISD elections, he potentially could have a significant impact on the shape of the board. Trustees Olga Hernandez, Tom Lopez and board President James Howard all have seats up for election in May.

Lopez, the longest-serving board member, said he wasn't concerned by Castro's plan to beef up his involvement in the city's schools, including a “mayor's scorecard” for area districts.

“We're evaluated from all different angles, all different perspectives,” Lopez said.

He was shocked, however, by news that Castro also intends to get involved in school board elections. In the interview, Castro said he would support former Councilwoman Patti Radle should she throw her hat in Lopez's District 5 race.

“I don't know, that kind of catches me by surprise,” Lopez said, noting that he always has supported Castro.

Lopez said it wasn't common for San Antonio mayors to take such an active interest in schools, “but then again that's the mayor's prerogative.”

Radle said Saturday afternoon that she'd been asked by several community members to consider a run for the seat, and she's doing just that.

“I'm still weighing the situation,” said Radle, who's deeply involved in several nonprofit agencies and a capital campaign. “I have a lot of responsibilities right now.”

Radle said she wasn't concerned by Castro's efforts to become more involved in school board elections.

“The issue of children is not out of the purview of anyone, and the issue of job preparedness should be a concern for everyone,” she said. “So I don't think there has to be a divorce between mayor and council on one hand and the school system on the other.”

Char Miller, a retired Trinity University urban studies professor now at Pomona College in California, said Castro is kicking down the wall that's always stood between mayors and independent school districts.

“We have a lot of independent school districts — each one of which is its own political fiefdom — and that may well serve everyone well, but it also means that the City Council and the mayor ... have precious little impact or influence on what takes place there.”

Miller said previous mayors have used the bully pulpit of their office to advocate for change, “but there has never been such a direct insertion by a mayor of the mayor into school board elections and the like, which is kind of astonishing.

“I can only imagine the conversations that are taking place in all of those school boards and superintendent offices,” he said.

‘Education City'

On Saturday, as about 1,000 people wrapped up SA2020, Castro's collaborative long-term planning effort, it was clear that for San Antonio to succeed during the next decade, improving education would be pivotal.

During the session, participants discussed how to connect seemingly disparate issues — from downtown development to economic competitiveness and family well-being.

Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA, said education “is the river that runs through our lives and binds us together as a community.” Several other speakers, representing the collective thoughts of their working groups, pointed to a strong education system as a game changer — a daunting task made more difficult by looming state budget cuts in the Legislature.

During an activity that required participants to create stories as if they were in the year 2020 looking back over the past decade, one person said: “Once San Antonio became known as the Education City, everything changed.”

For the past several months, thousands of San Antonians have come together to help craft the community-driven vision.

“The hard work, the real effort starts now,” Castro said during closing remarks. “The next months and years are about doing that, accomplishing that.”

SA2020 leaders, such as Daryl Byrd — one of the project's three chairmen — said pointedly that the thrust of SA2020 encompasses everyone here, “from the board room to the family room.” Rackspace Hosting's Graham Weston, also a SA2020 chairman, said that what happens after the visioning process is what will determine whether the project is a success.

“What really matters is doing. What really matters is action,” he said. “If you don't act, the vision means nothing.”

As implementation begins, if SA2020 is to be deemed successful, it'll be because governmental agencies — including the independent school districts — the business community, the nonprofit world and the public all work together.

The SA2020 document will play a role in selecting projects for the city's 2012 bond program, and Castro said the planning project's priorities must be embraced by Bexar County, the school districts and other sectors of the community.

Castro told an impassioned story about when he and his twin, state Rep. Joaquín Castro, were headed to California to enroll at Stanford University. Only their second time on an airplane, the brothers cried all the way to El Paso. About a month later, they were back (temporarily) on their mother's doorstep. It was an intangible attraction to San Antonio that had the Castro brothers pining for home, and now, the mayor wants to foster that same attraction for others to make this city the great place he thinks it can be.

Areas charted

The vision for San Antonio in 2020 comprises these 11 elements:

Arts and culture

Community safety

Downtown development

Economic competitiveness


Family well-being

Government accountability and civic engagement

Health and fitness

Natural resources and environmental sustainability

Neighborhoods and growth management


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